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The making of surprise hit Hi-Fi Rush

Director John Johanas explains how the rhythm action game was inspired by everything from Radiohead to the Dreamcast.

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A screenshot from the video game Hi-Fi Rush.
Hi-Fi Rush.
Image: Tango Gameworks

Hi-Fi Rush is a slick and stylish action game — but it’s also a game about what it feels like to play music live. The rhythm hack-and-slash title from developer Tango Gameworks is rooted in John Johanas’ own history with music. The game’s director was the guitarist in a band with friends in high school, playing Radiohead covers as a self-taught group. His experience onstage during the school’s battle of the bands as well as a few one-off shows later is one he remembers fondly.

“A lot of this game is influenced by the feeling of nailing it with other people playing in a band,” Johanas says. “Obviously, it’s single-player, but there’s this weird visceral feeling that’s extremely hard to describe: that reaction of a couple of people sticking together and playing something to the rhythm, and it hits and it lands perfectly. That feeling itself was kind of the initial inspiration for what I wanted to get across in this title.”

“There’s this weird visceral feeling that’s extremely hard to describe”

It was a short-lived period, as the group soon graduated from high school, but Johanas has been chasing that feeling in different ways since. As we talk over Zoom, I point out a guitar leaning against the wall in his living room. He mentions that he doesn’t have as much free time to play nowadays as he would like, but he recently picked it up again after the busy months that led to the game’s release. “I think I’ve forgotten everything I’ve ever learned,” he laughs. “It’s such a shame that I practiced so much and forgot everything. But I enjoy learning a song that I like and being able to play it myself. It’s more of a hobby than anything.”

Rhythm games have also been filling that gap over the years. While he and his high school friends loved Rock Band — choosing different instruments than the ones they played in real life — his favorite has always been Guitar Hero Live. He felt that this particular entry in the series was the one that made it feel like you were actually playing the instrument and was particularly upset when Activision announced it was being shut down back in 2018. At the same time, it was also a key factor in the making of Hi-Fi Rush.

“Actually, under my desk at work, I still have that Guitar Hero controller,” he says. “I brought it to the office to show people. We would look at that to understand how rhythm games worked in general, how they calculated whether or not you hit or didn’t hit the note, and things like that.”

A screenshot from the video game Hi-Fi Rush.
Image: Tango Gameworks

Hi-Fi Rush follows the spirit of games like Metal: Hellsinger and No Straight Roads, taking a popular genre and tying it to rhythm. In this case, protagonist Chai ends up having his iPod installed inside his chest after an incident involving robotic augmentation, and now, the world around him is tied to the beat. You then go through a total of 12 levels taking down robots while the music paces the action, fighting bosses representing different departments of an evil corporation, such as QA and finance, and doing quite a bit of platforming along the way.

The release was quite literally a surprise, as Tango Gameworks announced the project during the Xbox Developer Direct on January 25th and then launched it a few hours later. The team had different plans initially, but once the covid-19 pandemic took place in 2020, they kept waiting for the right moment to arrive. Johanas mentions that between the fact that E3 was canceled three years in a row and the Microsoft acquisition of Bethesda, Tango Gameworks’ publisher, the timing for a reveal seemed more and more uncertain over time.

In the end, the Xbox Developer Direct marked the perfect occasion, as the team was planning to release Hi-Fi Rush around that time either way. “The idea was, why not just drop it there?” he says. “As a creator, you’re generally nervous about how people will receive a project. We get nervous about the risks. But I have to say that it worked out better than we could have imagined.”

There was a short fright beforehand, however, as the name and logo leaked the day before the conference. “If this game hasn’t already leaked… fingers crossed, we hope it’s a pleasant surprise,” said Johanas during the presentation of the game at the Xbox showcase. “We recorded that a long time ago, so I was like, please don’t make me look stupid by leaking the game and then me being in a video,” he laughs. “We were lucky that no visuals for the game were released or what it was about, so we were able to get that visceral surprise from people when they saw it announced for the first time.”

From the start, the objective was to make Hi-Fi Rush as approachable to newcomers to music games as possible. During development, there was an extensive internal debate about how much of a rhythm experience they were going to add in. For experienced players, such as the sound team, actions like pressing buttons to the beat were second nature, but others couldn’t even get that, so the team knew they had to simplify things.

“A lot of our team members, they wanted some of the more rhythm game aspects in there, and at first, it was something I was almost pushing against,” he says. “I didn’t want to isolate people who maybe had an issue with rhythm. Theoretically, if we can ease players into it, we thought it’d be possible.”

While you can parry any time during combat, there are specific sections in which you need to repeat a pattern before an enemy performs a series of attacks following said pattern against Chai. The team decided on a call-and-repeat idea, similar to Simon Says, as most people would be able to follow the rhythm that way.

A screenshot from the video game Hi-Fi Rush.
Image: Tango Gameworks

Aside from the rhythm elements, another goal was to present a throwback-type game. Johanas kept seeing the trend of games chasing modern technology and how the goal seems to be as close to real life as possible in terms of presentation. Hi-Fi Rush, on the other hand, almost feels like a Dreamcast title — and that was deliberate, as was moving away from the darker tone of past works from Tango Gameworks itself, such as The Evil Within or Ghostwire: Tokyo.

“I wanted, almost as a teaching lesson for myself as well as something that I felt people were instinctively craving, to go back to the basics of a game that is just fun to play and wasn’t positioned as story-first or anything like that,” he tells me. “Sometimes you just want something that is almost pure fun and unpretentious. We’re not trying to be anything more than a feel-good experience.”

Quite a lot in Hi-Fi Rush feels like a throwback. The game is riddled with pop culture references, much like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, and Twin Peaks. The soundtrack — a mix of original tracks, remixes, and licensed tracks — also exemplifies this, with artists including Nine Inch Nails, Zwan, and The Black Keys, to name a few.

“We’re not trying to be anything more than a feel-good experience.”

Johanas spent a long time iterating on a setlist that would fit the game properly, both in tone and in the mechanical sense. While he argues that some of the songs included still feel new to him, such as “Invaders Must Die” by The Prodigy, he thought that there would be a request to include tracks from the last few years. Yet the point he always brought up is that this is not a game about licensed music. The tracks are meant to pay tribute to the game’s vibe and the artists of that time, exposing them to new audiences — which is how he discovered “Whirring” from The Joy Formidable while playing Guitar Hero Live.

“I have my own picks of favorite songs of all time,” he tells me. “The problem is that when we were making a game, even if I love the song I want to put in, I wouldn’t sacrifice that for it working in the game.” The team figured out that the game would essentially run between 130 to 160 beats per minute (BPM), so Johanas had to go through the potential list and see which ones technically worked. The ones that didn’t, however, served as references for the original tracks, so the curation was fruitful.

That thorough iteration process extended to how the game looks. Into The Spider-Verse was a particular inspiration, pushing the art team to learn techniques and visual style; no one had previous experience with cel shading or animations that involved stretching, for example.

A screenshot from the video game Hi-Fi Rush.
Image: Tango Gameworks

The game also frequently jumps from in-game cutscenes to animated scenes in 2D. Johanas explains the 2D animation came from both a cost and scope perspective. At the beginning of the game, you’re able to see the whole campus in which the levels take place as well as dozens of NPC characters. But the team didn’t have the resources to craft all of those elements from scratch. As such, they got in touch with an animation company called Titmouse, which helped to make those scenes — all of them being tied to the rhythm, of course — while the team redid stages and cutscenes so there would always be an impact caused by a punch or a hit that would lead to a more natural transition between styles.

In terms of levels, the team wanted to include an HR department Chai would go through, but it ended up getting cut when they realized they already had too many characters. But the idea lived on in a different manner thanks to a modeler who made one of the game’s robots look like Sebastián Castellanos, the protagonist of The Evil Within. Johanas decided that he would take the position of HR department, playing into the parody that they’re always trying to sweep actual problems under the rug to make it look like their company is doing great.

“You have to put in the work to actually make it real”

“That was actually really fun to write. I was just writing it as a stream of consciousness, and half of it didn’t make sense but it just felt noir-ish. When we were recording the voices people were like ‘does this make sense?’ And I’d say, ‘It doesn’t but just go with it,’” he laughs.

Perhaps the biggest example of iteration is related to Roquefort, who is the boss in charge of accounting. When confronted by Chai, he’s actually quite small but immediately becomes the biggest encounter in the game by jumping inside a werewolf mech. Johanas says that the original idea was that, if he didn’t have a steady drip of coffee, he would turn into a werewolf, and Chai had accidentally destroyed his coffee machine. But setting it up was too complicated.

In the final version, you begin the fight in a large room and, through the course of it, end up transitioning to the inside of the company’s vault. Johanas then proposed the idea of mimicking the money pit from Scrooge McDuck in DuckTales. But some ideas, like having the money pipes be the sandworms from Dune, had to be left on the drawing board. “We just liked the idea that the smallest character in the lineup would eventually be the biggest one and then have this over-to-top, almost symphonic fight that, in the end, you don’t actually defeat him, he’s defeated by the profits that come in.”

A screenshot from the video game Hi-Fi Rush.
Image: Tango Gameworks

At its core, Hi-Fi Rush centers its story and characters around Chai. Johanas goes back to the idea of music, talking about the people who spend years trying to “make it” in that industry. Eventually, some of them face reality while others spend years chasing it until they’re able to do it. Chai fits into the category of someone who hasn’t faced reality yet, and he’s going out to do so. Nothing he does is mean-spirited, but it just comes from overconfidence — hence why the team focused on having the characters around him put Chai in his place, saying that, to be a rockstar, he needs to prove himself. That sentiment can be applied in different circumstances.

“If I want to use a game developer, for example, anyone can have a good idea and feel like they have the best idea for a game ever,” he says. “But you have to put in the work to actually make it real, and that’s a lot of work. Chai is the type of person who doesn’t want to put in the work, and he’s just looking for an easy way in. He’s kind of lucky in a lot of situations throughout the game, but he does realize that it’s less about him being cool and more about what it takes.”

Hi-Fi Rush may have seemed like a big departure from outside the studio, but for Johanas, it all ties back to those dreams of being a rockstar.

“Radiohead is probably my favorite band of all time,” he says. “They changed my perspective on what you can do with music or how you can transform your image over time. That was almost weirdly inspiring for how we made this game. I would listen to Kid A from them going to work because it always reminded me that you can pivot art, and as long as you’re super confident and super proud and make something that you think is good, it will find its audience.”